UKPC 3 Almazeedi v Penner at the Privy Council was recently brought to my attention by Christopher Grout. The case concerns a challenge to the independence of a judge sitting in the Financial Services Division of the Grand Court of the Cayman Islands.
Judge in the present case was Cresswell J, former judge of the High Court of England and Wales from 1991 to 2007. Following his retirement from that position, he became in 2009 an additional judge of the Financial Services Division of the Grand Court, sitting ad hoc from time to time as required. The Division consisted of the Chief Justice and two other full-time judges, together with three additional judges sitting part-time, one of whom was Cresswell J. From a time late in 2011, he also became a Supplementary Judge of the Civil and Commercial Court, Qatar Financial Centre (although he was not in the end instructed or renumerated there).
Cresswell J was the judge assigned with the conduct of a winding-up petition and associated applications and thereafter with the winding-up of BTU Power Company (“BTU”). The entire economic interest in BTU was held by its preference shareholders who were in the main Qatari interests with strong state connections, and to a minor extent Dubai Islamic Bank. The present case involves a challenge to all aspects of Cresswell J’s activity. The challenge is made having regard to Cresswell J’s position as a judge in Qatar and to the involvement in the proceedings before him of these Qatari interests and of Qatari personalities representing or interested in them.
No suggestion of actual bias at any time in either court was ever made. The question relates rather to whether the fair-minded and informed observer would discount the risk of unconscious bias. The Privy Council held such observer would not so discount: at 34: ‘with some reluctance, [we have] come to the conclusion that the Court of Appeal was right to regard it as inappropriate for the judge to sit without disclosure of his position in Qatar as regards the period after 26 June 2013 and that this represented a flaw in his apparent independence’.
Note the dissenting opinion by Lord Sumption at 36 ff, who notes ‘Sir Peter Cresswell is not alleged to have done anything which could raise doubts about his independence. The case against him rests entirely on the notion that he might be influenced, possibly unconsciously, by the hypothetical possibility of action being taken against him in Qatar as a result of any decision in the Cayman Islands which was contrary to the Qatari Government’s interests. Hypothetical possibilities may of course found a case of apparent bias, but since there are few limits to the possibilities that can be hypothetically envisaged, there must be some substance to them.’
‘The notional fair-minded and informed observer whose presumed reaction is the benchmark for apparent bias, has only to be satisfied that there is a real risk of bias. But where he reaches this conclusion, he does so with care, after ensuring that he has informed himself of all the relevant facts. He is not satisfied with a look-sniff impression. He is not credulous or naïve. But neither is he hyper-suspicious or apt to envisage the worst possible outcome.’
I believe Lord Sumption’s approach is the better one. Yet it was not carried hence in international commercial courts the standards have become very exacting indeed.